Columbia crowd objects to taxpayer-funded baseball park

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 16, 2014 

A baseball park could be located in the heart of the proposed Bull Street neighborhood and become a catalyst to retail and residential development.

JACQUI — Image courtesy of Hardball Capital

A crowd hostile to any public funding for a baseball stadium in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood vented its ire Thursday.

“Why should any tax dollars be used to subsidize him to make money?” asked one man, referring to Jason Freier, owner of Hardball Capital, which is seeking to move one of its minor-league teams to Columbia.

A crowd of about 60 people attended a forum organized at Woodlands Park by two City Council members who have been critical of the city building a stadium to attract professional baseball to the capital city.

A straw poll taken during the meeting in southeast Columbia, where votes tend to be higher income and conservative, found 37 people voted against a public ballpark, said Councilman Moe Baddourah, one of the organizers of the meeting. Five endorsed the stadium and one was undecided, Baddourah sais after the meeting ended.

People in the crowd peppered consultants hired by the city to perform a feasibility study with a range of questions – almost all challenged the study’s findings.

As the meeting stretched to three hours, the tone veered into many people in the crowd airing pent-up objections to City Council’s decision in July to commit tens of millions of dollars to utilities, parking garages and a stadium to help the former mental health agency site succeed as a 165-acre neighborhood.

“People in the room have just been forced to swallow $70 million to $80 million for the old State Hospital property,” one man said.

Speaker after speaker questioned nearly every aspect of the feasibility study by Brailsford & Dunlavey Inc., which concluded that Columbia is ripe for minor-league baseball and a stadium that could be used for a range of public events year-round.

Jason Thompson, a company vice president said his firm occasionally determines that pro baseball will not succeed in some cities.

“I don’t think I have to dash any dreams in Columbia,” Thompson said. “This is a very solid market.”

He told the crowd that the national norm for construction of minor-league stadiums calls for 80 percent public funding and 20 percent private money.

The study projected that a Bull Street stadium would cost $41.8 million, including about $4.2 million to cover cost overruns.

Columbia officials are talking with Freier, owner of the Savannah Sand Gnats, about possibly moving the Class A South Atlantic League team here if Freier can’t persuade Savannah to build a new stadium to replace Grayson Stadium, built in 1926.

Freier and Mayor Steve Benjamin – council’s strongest advocate for a publicly funded stadium – complained that Freier was not given a chance to present his case to the audience before the floor was opened to the crowd.

“Half the things I’ve heard here are factually incorrect,” Freier told The State newspaper as he waited his turn to speak. He got the floor at 8:40 p.m. when the crowd had dwindled to one-third its size..

Asked if the crowd at Woodlands Park was the most hostile he has addressed, Freier said, “Oh, by far.”

 

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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